Sun Sun Co profited from novel, fresh ideas

Sun Sun Co, the third of the four big Chinese department stores on Nanjing Road, thrived on innovative ideas, including a glass radio station. 

Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

The facade of the former Sun Sun Co was designed in Art Deco style by C. H. Gonda.

The people behind Sun Sun Co, the third of the four big Chinese department stores on Nanjing Road (the other three being Sincere Co, Wing On and The Sun), borrowed a bit from ancient Chinese classics to mark itself out from its competitors and strike a chord among the locals.

The names, Sun Sun and The Sun, contained the Chinese character “xin,” or “new,” according to Li Chengji, the son of Sun Sun’s former manager Li Minzhou. The younger Li has been quoted as saying that the store’s name was inspired by a line from the Confucian classic “Da Xue,” or “Great Learning.”

Shanghai Archives Bureau researcher Zhang Yaojun says “it implied making new progress and achievement every day.”

“Unlike the first two stores ─ Sincere and Wing On ─ Sun Sun Co and The Sun had to dig deep into their pockets to rent a place on Nanjing Road because of soaring land price. Despite that, the two stores fearlessly marched into this popular street, and strived to make innovations to surpass their competitors,” Zhang says.

Founded by Chinese merchant S. K Lau, Sun Sun Co opened in 1926 on the crossroad of today’s Nanjing and Guangxi roads. With experience of business in Australia, Lau returned to China and joined the Sincere Co of Shanghai as a sub-manager and was later promoted as a manager. He resigned in 1924 and set up the Sun Sun Co in collaboration with a group of enterprising businessmen within a short period of a little more than two years.

When the emporium’s doors were “thrown open for inspection” in January 1926, it was described as a “spacious, commodious and different department store” by The North-China Herald.

Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

The ground floor showcased wines and spirits, stationery and a savings bank while the first floor contained silks, boots and shoes. The second floor was devoted to chinaware, glass, electric fixtures, clocks and watches while the third floor was stocked with brass and iron bedsteads, carpets and black wood furniture.

More than 50,000 foreign and Chinese patrons went from floor to floor on the day of its opening and “found almost anything that one can ‘buy in Chicago,’ and perhaps even some articles that are not purchasable in the metropolis of department stores.”

The edifice was also “a tribute to Shanghai’s growth and future prosperity.”

“Constructed on the most modern lines, plenty of windows and good indirect lighting, comfortable lifts and adequate display counters, the new premises will delight prospective purchasers and make shopping a pleasure,” The North-China Herald said in a report.

According to Tongji University professor Qian Zonghao, Sun Sun Co reveals a more modern style than its predecessors ─ Sincere and Wing On.

“Divided by three sections, the facade is designed in Art Deco style, or more accurately a transition from neoclassic to Art Deco style,” Qian says.

The architect was C. H. Gonda, a renowned Hungarian architect, whose works included the Cathay Theater on Huaihai Road, No. 14 on the Bund and the Capitol Theater in today’s Waitanyuan, all of which feature an ultra-modern style. In 1930, the architect also renovated the 19th-century building of Whiteaway, Laidlaw & Co Ltd on Nanjing Road, which at one time was the largest foreign-owned department store in modern Shanghai.

Lu Yongyi, another Tongji University professor in architectural history, notes the facade of Sun Sun Co mirrored the Chicago school of architecture.

“Sun Sun’s extraordinary signature tower fashioned the building into a commercial monument of a fresh style,” she wrote in a recent paper “The Four Department Stores of Shanghai in the Early 20th Century.”

In the era of the four department stores, architectural design participated in the competition for space and capital in metropolitan Shanghai, Lu notes.

“The strenuous efforts to achieve architectural heights reflected congregation and competition of the four stores, but more importantly, the position of Chinese capitals in a foreign settlement,” she says.

Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

The original staircases with cast iron railings are well-preserved at the Shanghai First Foodhall.

Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

The signature tower on top of the department store

Glass radio station

Sun Sun Co boldly experimented with innovations since its opening in 1926.

The North-China Herald mentioned that “one of the most popular devices installed in the new store of the Sun Sun Co is the Perfume Ball from which drips scented spray down on the first step of the stairway on the ground floor.” 

It attracted customers who waited to catch every drop on to their handkerchiefs or coat sleeves.

The China Press noted that what “strikes the eye at once is the spacious central stairway, flanked by roomy lifts capable of carrying twenty persons.”

In addition, Sun Sun Co also worked out a variety of promotional ideas such as giving out free cigarettes, inviting “some of the city’s prettiest girls” to parade for an exhibition of modern swimsuits or hosted toy shows.

But researcher Zhang says the store's greatest promotional idea was a “glass radio station.” 

“Manager Lau thought there was no point in imitating Sincere and Wing On stores and opening an amusement park on the roof garden. So he came up with the idea of a radio station,” researcher Zhang says.

Back in the 1920s, radio programs were still new to many Chinese as the first wireless radio station opened only in 1923 and the stations were all owned by foreign companies.

A Lau’s employee, a technician named Kuang Zan who had studied wireless technology in San Francisco, agreed to design and manufacture the equipment for Sun Sun’s radio station. It began to broadcast pleasant music from March 18, 1927 from the store’s sixth floor.

The station broadcast six hours every day featuring mostly traditional opera programs while promoting the store’s products and special promotions.

“When more radio stations opened in Shanghai, smart Lau renovated the broadcasting room into an all transparent glass room. The ‘glass radio station’ allowed people to see the usually mysterious broadcasting process. It became a major attraction and helped in increasing the store’s sales considerably,” Zhang says.

Today, the glass radio stations are a thing of the past but the Art Deco building is still blessed with good business by serving as Shanghai First Foodhall, a Nanjing Road flagship of Shanghai First Food Chain Development Co Ltd.

The 10,000-square-meter foodhall has been open since 1954 and offers more than 20,000 kinds of food products in its four floors. According to General Manager Yang Jing, the customers include both locals and tourists who contribute to an amazing sale of 600 million yuan (US$92 million) every year.

A paradise for food lovers, the mall is filled traditional Chinese or imported food and flooded with customers from around the country. You can now only imagine former scenes in the building when a beautiful young lady sat behind a glass and in a soft-toned voice spoke into the microphone.

Renowned Shanghai composer Chen Gang’s mother Jin Jiaoli was a broadcaster at the Sun Sun radio station.

“It was the first radio station to be designed, equipped and founded by a Chinese. I think it was also a kind of symbol of transparent, open radio station and white-collar Chinese women began entering metropolitan life,” the 83-year-old musician wrote in a book themed on old Shanghai songs and singers. He titled the book “The Glass Radio Station.”

Shanghai First Foodhall / Ti Gong

An archive photo of the Sun Sun Co

Building details

Address: 720 Nanjing Rd E.

Yesterday: Sun Sun Co

Today: Shanghai First Foodhall

Date of construction: 1926

Architectural style: Art Deco

Architect: C. H. Gonda

Tips: Admire the building’s simple-cut Art Deco facade bathed in sunlight before entering the foodhall which offers one of the city’s most complete collections of traditional Shanghai food.


Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

The Shanghai First Foodhall features 20,000 kinds of food products.

One-stop Christmas shopping

Nanjing Road is thronged with shoppers from all over China, especially during the holiday season like Christmas, New Year and the Chinese New Year.

Back in 1936, The China Press published a special report on wide choices of gifts on offer at Sun Sun Co. The story reflects the living standards and lifestyles of the well-off in old Shanghai:

“The counters of the Sun Sun Department Store, the Universal Providers, on Nanking Road, would tempt any Christmas shopper …

The store reported a great volume of Christmas trade in the past week. The large stock of excellent toys and games, recently imported by the store, is proving to be a big draw card for Christmas present seekers.

Everything to make Christmas shopping easy has been done at this modern department store. It is easy to shop at Sun Sun because everything is placed in its proper department. Another attraction is that prices are unusually low this year.

The entire store is gaily decorated for the holiday season. All you have to do is to make a Christmas shopping list and go to Sun Sun and have them fill the order for you.

The toy department at Sun Sun is very complete, with a wide variety of toys being displayed. Dolls, small and big, animated toy animals and mechanical sets, hundreds of suitable games and attractive books for boys and girls are among the many things you can choose from.

From top to bottom the gifts displayed are ‘perfect.’ Fine stationery, fountain pens and other writing accessories are on sale for Christmas, and the prices are very moderate.

Sun Suns has a great stock of unusually fine novelty jewelry, perfumes and any number of little things that are bound to make pleasant Christmas surprises.

In the provision department, fancy boxes of chocolates, candy in stockings, biscuits and confectionary, fine spirits and wines can be bought.

It is easy to do your shopping for the entire family at Sun Sun Department Store. The collection of pipes, cigar and cigarette holders, fine cigars and cigarettes and pipe tobacco would tempt any smoker. There are excellent cameras for those who have a hobby in photography, and wearing apparel to suit the needs of young and old.

If you plan to give Christmas ties this year be sure to look over Sun Sun’s stock of ties. You’ll find them in quiet styles for the conservative man and in elaborately decorated styles to suit the man who likes a bit of color.

Whatever it is that you want to purchase the chances are 99 to one than you’ll find it at Sun Sun. Neckties and other wearing apparel things for the smoker, cameras, perfumes or provisions for Christmas dinner — you’ll find them all at the Sun Sun Department Store.”

─ Excerpts from the China Press (December 22, 1936)

Zhang Xuefei / SHINE


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